In English the name of this tribe is either Obotrites or Obodrites. The Polish name is Obodryci, Obodrzycy, Obodrzyce. In Czech the same name is written Obodrice or Bodrice. The same in Latin is spelled Abodriti. They were the westernmost northern Slavic tribal confederation that had been recorded.
But where did the name come from and what does it mean? A number of hypotheses are present:
Some say their name refers to the Oder river – Odra – and they were “people who lived at the Odra”.
A variation of this states that they had lived on “both” sides of the Odra. That is, the “obo” refers to “both” – as in “obie” (both) Odry – both Oders.
Another variation would say that they were the ones that lived “obok” that is “at the” or “by” the Oder.
Yet another variation would be to ask whether the “o” should not rather (like the Latinized version) have been an “a” – thus, for example, we can ask whether those were the people who “came from” the Oder. This would be a German etymology – that is it relies on the word “ab” or “from”. This would be a kind of an amalgam – Odra is a Slavic version (Oder being the German version) but the “ab” would seemingly be a Germanic addition. In fact, perhaps the original name had been Od-odrites, that is “from the Oder”.
Or perhaps, consistent with some versions of their names, such as the Czech Bodrici, the name refers to the worshippers of the Polish Goddess Boda?
Their first mention seems to be in the Carolingian annals for the year 789 where we read that Charlemagne entered the territory of the Slavic Wilzi (Veleti) accompanied by Franks, Saxons, Frisians and Slavs “called Sorbs and the Obodrites, whose chieftain was Witzan.”
As was already mentioned previously, the Veleti – the Obodrites’ great Slavic competitors – who, by the way, also make their first acknowledged historical appearance in that exact same entry – strangely seem to make an (unacknowledged) appearance already in Ptolemy’s Geography where it is said, that “back from the Ocean, near the Venedicus bay, the Veltae dwell, above whom are the Ossi.”
Could the Obodrites have the same claim to fame? It seems the answer could be yes. Ptolemy’s description of Germania says that: “below the Gabreta forest are the Marcomani, brow whom are the Sudini, then extending to the Danube river are the Adrabaecampi” (ὑπὸ δὲ τὴν Γαβρήταν Ὕλην Μαρκομανοὶ, ὑφ’ οὓς Σουδινοὶ, καὶ μέχρι τοῦ Δανουβίου ποταμοῦ οἱ Ἀδραβαικάμποι·). Could the Adrabaecampi be a name for the Obodrites or Abotrites? Curiously, we also have a few lines above the Parmaecampi – both Parma and Adra being, potentially, of northern Italian – and, in the case of the Adra, of Venetic origin.
But, it gets better.
There is a possibility that there were two different tribes of Obotrites. In fact, the very same Carolingian Annals mention (under the entry for the year 824) that: “The emperor [Louis the Pious] also received the envoys of the Obodrites who are commonly called Praedenecenti and live in Dacia on the Danube as neighbors of the Bulgars, of whose arrival he had been informed.” In the same annals, just two years earlier (in the year 822) we hear of the emperor receiving “embassies and presents from all the East Slavs, that is, Obodrites, Sorbs, Wilzi, Bohemians, Moravians, and the Praedenecenti” which further confuses the picture.
So were the “southern Obodrites” the same as Praedenecenti or was this simply a confusion on the part of the Frankish author who could not tell all these Slavs apart?
There is something that suggests that the scribe got it right (for the year 824).
Abdera in the South
First, interestingly, there is another Odra river right by the Croatian capital of Zagreb (this, in addition to other places with the same name, including in India). This is not quite at the Danube but certainly closer to that river than the northern Obotrites were.
Second, there is another city whose name evokes the Obotrites or Abotrites. This one is not in Dacia or Pannonia but in Thrace (not close to the Danube but close enough?). This is the city of Abdera (Ἄβδηρα) of which Strabo (Book &, Chapter 7, section 44-49) says:
“after the strait of Thasos one comes to Abdera and the scene of the myths connected with Abderus. It was inhabited by the Bistonian Thracians over whom Diomedes ruled. The Nestus River does not always remain in the same bed, but oftentimes floods the country. Then come Dicaea, a city situated on a gulf, and a harbor. Above these lies the Bistonis, a lake which has a circuit of about two hundred stadia. It is said that, because this plain was altogether a hollow and lower than the sea, Heracles, since he was inferior in horse when he came to get the mares of Diomedes, dug a canal through the shore and let in the water of the sea upon the plain and thus mastered his adversaries.”
Strabo then goes on to say:
“After the Nestus River, towards the east, is the city Abdera, named after Abderus, whom the horses of Diomedes devoured; then, near by, the city Picaea, above which lies a great lake, Bistonis; then the city Maroneia. Thrace as a whole consists of twenty-two tribes. But although it has been devastated to an exceptional degree, it can send into the field fifteen thousand cavalry and also two hundred thousand infantry. After Maroneis one comes to the city Orthagoria and to the region about Serrhium (a rough coasting voyage) and to Tempyra, the little town of the Samothracians, and to Caracoma, another little town, off which lies the island Samothrace, and to Imbros, which is not very far from Samothrace; Thasos, however, is more than twice as far from Samothrace as Imbros is. … Now Paulus, who captured Perseus, annexed the Epeirotic tribes to Macedonia, divided the country into four parts for purposes of administration, and apportioned one part to Amphipolis, another to Thessaloniceia, another to Pella, and another to the Pelagonians. Along the Hebrus live the Corpili, and, still farther up the river, the Brenae, and then, farthermost of all, the Bessi, for the river is navigable thus far. All these tribes are given to brigandage, but most of all the Bessi, who, He says, are neighbors to the Odrysae and the Sapaei. Bizye was the royal residence of the Astae. The term “Odrysae” is applied by some to all the peoples living above the seaboard from the Hebrus and Cypsela as far as Odessus – the peoples over whom Amadocus, Cersobleptes, Berisades, Seuthes, and Cotys reigned as kings.“
Then, a bit later:
“Iasion and Dardanus, two brothers, used to live in Samothrace. But when Iasion was struck by a thunderbolt because of his sin against Demeter, Dardanus sailed away from Samothrace, went and took up his abode at the foot of Mount Ida, calling the city Dardania, and taught the Trojans the Samothracian Mysteries. In earlier times, however, Samothrace was called Samos.”
Strabo then returns to Abdera in Book 11 (chapter 14, sections 13-15):
“There is an ancient story of the Armenian race to this effect: that Armenus of Armenium, a Thessalian city, which lies between Pherae and Larisa on Lake Boebe, as I have already said,26 accompanied Jason into Armenia; and Cyrsilus the Pharsalian and Medius the Larisaean, who accompanied Alexander, say that Armenia was named after him, and that, of the followers of Armenus, some took up their abode in Acilisene, which in earlier times was subject to the Sopheni, whereas others took up their abode in Syspiritis, as far as Calachene and Adiabene, outside the Armenian mountains. They also say that the clothing of the Armenians is Thessalian, for example, the long tunics, which in tragedies are called Thessalian and are girded round the breast; and also the cloaks that are fastened on with clasps, another way in which the tragedians imitated the Thessalians, for the tragedians had to have some alien decoration of this kind; and since the Thessalians in particular wore long robes, probably because they of all the Greeks lived in the most northerly and coldest region, they were the most suitable objects of imitation for actors in their theatrical make-ups. And they say that their style of horsemanship is Thessalian, both theirs and alike that of the Medes. To this the expedition of Jason and the Jasonian monuments bear witness, some of which were built by the sovereigns of the country, just as the temple of Jason at Abdera was built by Parmenion. It is thought that the Araxes was given the same name as the Peneius by Armenus and his followers because of its similarity to that river, for that river too, they say, was called Araxes because of the fact that it “cleft” Ossa from Olympus, the cleft called Tempe. And it is said that in ancient times the Araxes in Armenia, after descending from the mountains, spread out and formed a sea in the plains below, since it had no outlet, but that Jason, to make it like Tempe, made the cleft through which the water now precipitates itself into the Caspian Sea, and that in consequence of this the Araxene Plain, through which the river flows to its precipitate descent, was relieved of the sea. Now this account of the Araxes contains some plausibility, but that of Herodotus not at all; for he says that after flowing out of the country of the Matieni it splits into forty rivers and separates the Scythians from the Bactrians. Callisthenes, also, follows Herodotus. It is also said of certain of the Aenianes that some of them took up their abode in Vitia and others above the Armenians beyond the Abus and the Nibarus. These two mountains are parts of the Taurus, and of these the Abus is near the road that leads into Ecbatana past the temple of Baris. It is also said that certain of the Thracians, those called “Saraparae,” that is “Decapitators,” took up their abode beyond Armenia near the Guranii and the Medes, a fierce and intractable people, mountaineers, scalpers, and beheaders, for this last is the meaning of “Saraparae.” I have already discussed Medeia in my account of the Medes; and therefore, from all this, it is supposed that both the Medes and the Armenians are in a way kinsmen to the Thessalians and the descendants of Jason and Medeia.”
And Then There Were More
Curiously, there is another Abdera – appearing as abdrt on its oldest coins. This one is Andalusia and appears to have been a Phoenician colony. Its modern name is Adra.
This Abdera, we are told, was founded by the Phonicians. Yet, adra type names are generally understood to be Indo-European which immediately raises several questions. For example, recall the Adriatic or the various Odras – the explanation here was that these may have been “Veneti” names.
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